The Truth Resists Simplicity

As a child, I frequently heard a specific refrain when there was food on my plate that I didn’t want to eat.

“Eat X food. Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?”

I was always baffled by that sentiment. Did I want to grow up to be big and strong? That seemed silly to me. I just wanted to be normal. Whatever that meant.

To my mom, growing up big and strong had a very physical skew to its meaning. Throughout most of middle and high school, I was a long distance runner. I didn’t crack 150 pounds until shortly before graduation, and only then because I had chosen not to do track my senior year. Every time I saw my mom, she complained that I looked emaciated, saying that I needed to gain weight if I wanted to stay healthy. The last time I saw my mom in person was around four years ago. At the time, I was near the largest I’ve ever been, coming in at around 240-250 pounds. My mom’s response? I only needed to put on a few more pounds to look “normal”1The irony to this is that my mom is five foot tall and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 pounds. I wasn’t terribly far from being three times her weight..

To my first stepmom, growing up big and strong meant learning how to be physical, both in life and sports. Choosing cross country over football wasn’t just a sign of weakness, it was damn near treasonous. If my stepbrothers were bullying me, it was my job to punch them back. No one was going to help me, nor were they going to care that said stepbrothers were ten and thirteen years older than me, respectively. Drink up the milk, young Tim. It’ll help you in a fight.

But why did I need to be big and strong? Why did it matter? Put simply, there’s evil in the world. If you can’t stand up for what you believe in — and what you believe inĀ is what is right — why bother living?

Over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that understanding and standing up for what you believe in is critically important. With that said, if you cannot also learn to listen to, communicate with, and attempt to understand those who have different points of view than you, you’re only doing a disservice to yourself.

I want to grow intellectually. I want to find a better understanding of the world around me. The world around me is extremely complex. It’s changing on a daily basis around each and every one of us. And if I’m not doing what I can to learn about the world at large — eating my knowledge vegetables to grow up big and strong, if you will — I’ll grow up to be intellectually weak. I won’t be able to adapt and to learn about those around me. I won’t be able to be empathetic towards someone who is different from me, especially in a world where empathy is sorely lacking.

As much as I enjoy social media, it’s a toxic thing. Twitter in particular seems to bring out the worst in people from all walks of life. If you’re not trying to be as radical, hateful, and obnoxious in your point of view as you can be, you’re not going to generate a following there. I’ve watched countless people I used to respect go down the road from being a normal human on Twitter to being a caricature of their former self. Only now they were filled with more rage than before. Some of it is the current American political climate, sure. But when you’re in an echo chamber where you only hear what you want to hear, anger gets amplified. People who don’t agree with you start to look less and less human. Everyone on the right becomes a fascist. Everyone on the left becomes a communist. And everyone in the middle, regardless of where on the continuum they fall, becomes little and weak because they’re perceived that they aren’t capable of taking a stand.

The truth resists that simplicity2As I channel my inner John Green with this statement., as it does with most simple explanations. There are very, very bad people in this world. Every group has its terrible people. Yes. All of them. Even the ones you, dear reader, belong to. And we cannot let those terrible people dictate our lives. But we also must remember that change does not occur overnight. Drinking one glass of milk doesn’t make you big and strong. Making one phone call to your congressman doesn’t solve all of the political problems. Seeing the actions of one side of the political spectrum and saying that your side could never do that because you’re not like that doesn’t fix anything.

Time, understanding, patience, and compassion fix things. Those attributes must be exercised towards everyone — ESPECIALLY those who are not like you. Otherwise, what’s there left to grow up for?

Can You Really Be You On the Internet Anymore?

On the internet, you are invisible and yet cannot hide from anyone. On the internet, you are both just a number and a unique entity. On the internet, everyone and no one is looking for you, all at the same time.

But are they really looking for you? And if so, are they finding the real you? Or are they merely finding the image you wish to share of yourself?

In late 2011, I lost my job. It was the first job I had out of grad school. I loved that job. I loved helping the people I got to interact with on a daily basis. I loved (most of) the people I worked with. I loved my short commute which let me drive home and eat lunch[1] if I wanted to. But between the company I worked for nearing shutting down and my relatively low “sales” numbers[2], I was an expendable cog in the machine.

I spent the better part of the next two months looking for a job. Between my own work and the help of a pair of staffing agencies, I had 8-10 interviews per month during the time I was unemployed. At the same time I was looking for a job, NaNoWriMo was going on. I took part in NaNoWriMo that year to provide myself a little bit of relief from the mental exhaustion that the job search caused me. Those two months I was unemployed was a pretty bleak time in my life — and my novel I wrote that November followed an even darker tone.

In early 2009, I was having a rough time adjusting to life out of college. I’d moved back home and started living with my grandparents. I took the first job I could find out of college[3], which meant I was working at a call center for less than a dollar an hour above the minimum wage. My then-girlfriend made it clear to me that I’d fallen much harder for her than she had for me. Couple that with some prejudices that I’d had formed in childhood that I still hadn’t moved on from[4], and that led to us breaking up quickly and extremely heatedly.

All of that combined together led to me seeing a psychologist for a few months. After our fourth or fifth appointment together, I had to tell the psychologist I couldn’t afford to keep coming to see her. Between my low paying job, working overnight hours, and not being able to afford health insurance[5], it just wasn’t realistic to keep getting professional help. The psychologist understood my plight and recommended that I try writing as a therapeutic technique. The goal was to get all of the thoughts and emotions I was struggling to cope with out of my head, if only to save myself the frustration of dealing with said thoughts.

So that’s what I did. And it worked. Writing allowed me to clear my head. It’s worked when I’ve written shitty 50 word posts online. It’s worked when I’ve turned those emotions into a much more creative endeavor. If it wasn’t for that advice — write to help my own psyche — I don’t know where I’d be in life today.

Yet as time as gone on, I’ve found myself more careful about what I write and talk about on the internet. Part of that is a natural fact of growing up and growing more mature in the process. But part of it is also this nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow, should I ever need a new job in the future, someone’s going to stumble on my work, see a post where I’m just venting off steam, and decide I’m a terrible human being. Job opportunity lost.

I know I’m not the only person that thinks this way. I follow more than a handful of people on Twitter who work as social media managers (or an equivalent role) for companies. A couple of them are actually promote themselves as their own brand. On one hand, it’s a brilliant ploy. In an increasingly digitized and interconnected world, who better than you to control the message that the media tells about you. It’s been the basis of American economics and politics for years now. Put yourself out there in the light you want other people to see you in.

On the other hand, only showing the happy, healthy, and hopeful sides of ourselves to the world is a foolish endeavor. We are complex individuals. We laugh and we cry. We do not do one or the other. To try to hide the fact that sometimes we fuck up is a failure in logic. Without mistakes, how can we learn how we need to improve ourselves?

I was asked recently when I was going to write a happy story. My short stories are generally pretty dark in nature, so why not try writing a happy one. Right? Most of me doesn’t want to. That’s not why I write. If a story ends up being happy, great. But I write in general — but especially my fiction — to help me process complex emotions, to release frustration, or just to be creative as I can be in turning an idea into something that I want to read. Generally, those stories end up being very dark.

Yet I find myself wondering if I’d be better received if I wrote happy stories. Would I be a better selling author? Would a book of upbeat stories I wrote be reviewed better than my collection of dark short stories[6]? Would a happy story enhance my brand and bring more eyes to my work?

That last question — that’s the one that frightens me. It’s the question that determines which side of the line I fall on. Am I a person or am I a commodity? That’s the power of the internet. It’s a terrifying power. Most people don’t even realize that power’s being exerted on them when it’s happening. Everyone can see everything and yet you’re all alone.

Kind of a dark idea, is it not? An entity that can completely change who you perceive yourself to be without you realizing it. It’s like you’re not even you anymore when you’re on the internet.